Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Magic of a Mentor

The Sisters in Crime listserv has a program called Mentor Monday. Once a month an expert in a related field takes questions about their area of expertise. This Monday it was Kris Neri, author and owner of an independent bookstore. She answered questions about owning and operating an indie bookseller in these turbulent book times. It was interesting and informative, but it's a one-day thing and none of us develop a relationship with the mentor.
On the other hand, there are mentors who enter our life for varying periods of time. I am lucky enough to have had a mentor all my professional life. I met Fred when I was in graduate school, forty years ago. He was a young faculty member, and I was his first doctoral candidate. We've kept up the teacher/student relationship, though Fred would tell you today that it's more a friendship of colleagues. Over the years I've called him with innumerable questions, especially when I was writing historical fiction: "If you were going to pay a sympathy call in 1904 in East Texas, what would you take?" The answer was dried fruit pies. "If you were a bored kid in East Texas, what would you do? Chunk rocks in the stock tank. His knowledge of the trivia of the nineteenth century astounds me--and what he doesn't know, he researches. Once he gave me a thorough lesson in the workings of a derringer for a story I'd been assigned to write. For years he was a valued member of the TCU Press editorial board, and I relied on him to be first reader of all young-adult novels submitted to us.
The relationship did sort of a flip a few years ago when he wrote a book called  Boys Books, Boys Dreams, and the Mystique of Flight, about boys aviation books of the early twentieth century. He submitted it to other presses, and I finally asked why he didn't bring it to TCU. He said he didn't think we'd consider it. Long story short, we published it and the next book , From Bird Women to Skygirls. I became his publisher.
But as I started to write mysteries, he took up the mentoring role. At TCU he taught the genre fiction classes, including mystery, and he's widely read in the field. He reads my manuscripts at various stages and discusses plot strategies with me. He is generous with his praise but never hesitant to suggest other developments, other ways to do things, parts that don't work, and problems he finds.  Today I particularly wanted to pick his brain about the plot of the third mystery I'm planning--I know what's going to happen but I was stumped on motivation. He made excellent suggestions at lunch, then emailed me later with yet another one that is spot on. So now, if I find time between animals, grandson, and other things, I can write that first paragraph. Nowadays, we each make suggestions to the other.
Fred and his wife have been to my house on a few occasions, and I've had dinner at theirs, but ours is not really a social relationship. It's collegial--and I'm grateful for that. Every writer should be so lucky.

No comments: